A rift between residents of the upper and lower Chehalis River Basin began to show during the course of a public meeting Thursday night in Montesano where the majority of speakers were opposed to a dam near Pe Ell.
Nearly 20 people testified at Montesano City Hall during the second of two public meetings for people to provide comment on the Department of Ecology’s draft Environmental Impact Statement, which presents four alternatives aimed at reducing flooding and bolstering aquatic speciies in the river basin. About 100 people attended.
Several Lewis County governments have recently come out in support of Alternative One, which would create a dam at the headwaters near Pe Ell. Comments received at the first public meeting, held in Chehalis, generally favored Alternative One. Lewis County leaders also said a permanent water reservoir could provide an economic boost to Pe Ell.
Alternative Four includes plans for the state to purchase some 21,000 acres of land along the river, much of which is privately owned, and restore the floodplain to allow for more natural flood reduction. Landowners could be relocated to surrounding hillsides or simply accept a buyout.
It didn’t receive much support in the upper basin.
Many Grays Harbor residents expressed their disdain for the dam option, with one commenter summing up her position by referring it as “specific for Lewis County residents,” a statement that garnered loud applause from the audience.
Grays Harbor resident Chris Wilson said flooding in Chehalis and Centralia is unfortunate but predictable.
“That’s a total bummer,” he said. “But the river’s been there a long time and you chose to build there.”
Wilson didn’t endorse any option, preferring to either do nothing or find a middle ground between the options.
Many other speakers questioned whether a dam would be effective in lowering flood levels in the lower basin and if, at a time when dams are being scrutinized across the nation, constructing a new one is prudent.
Members of basin tribes also made a strong showing.
Don Secena, chairman for the Chehalis tribe, said the Chehalis are opposed to Alternative One, which includes a dam near Pe Ell.
“The Chehalis people say no to a dam, that’s what they say,” Secena said. “We can’t support a project that has a dam in it, that’s my message.”
After the meeting, Secena said the Chehalis Tribe has not endorsed an official position, but he was authorized to comment based on input received from tribe members.
“We’re still reviewing the EIS, it’s a lot of document,” he said.
Rodney Youckton and Clarinda Underwood, of the Chehalis and Quinault tribes, respectively, emphasized the cultural significance of overall river health and fish runs.
They said Alternative One could have significant negative impacts.
“The rivers are our lifelines, and how do we protect our lifelines when the dams come in?” Youckton said.
Underwood, who is on the Quinault council but who spoke only for herself, said her son is a fisherman and the health of fish runs is important for her tribe and family.
“Fish means everything to them,” she said.
Heather Walker, of the Chehalis tribe, delivered an impassioned argument against the first alternative and questioned the scope of the environmental impact statement.
“I adamantly oppose having a dam on the Chehalis River,” she said. “...(The EIS) looks impressive with its over 1,300 pages, but it doesn’t say a whole lot.”
She also said local governments are required to negotiate in good faith with Native American nations when discussing projects or policy that could affect them.
Some 250 archeological sites line the river, which could be adversely affected by a dam, she said.
Support for the dam option was also voiced. Lewis County resident Jonathan Meyer, the county prosecutor, said Alternative One addresses fish habitat, economic stimulation and flood reduction.
“Alternative One is a true, basinwide solution,” he said.
Chehalis resident Tim Dyeson said he owns property that would be submerged if Alternative Four was implemented, and that many Lewis County residents would have to be relocated.
“This would destroy families, it would destroy communities,” he said.
Grays Harbor residents Al Zepp and Don Wood also voiced support for Alternative One.
Zepp, an Elma farmer, said the study did show an increase in fish runs if the dam was constructed and said a water reservoir could help agriculture by providing water when needed.
He also said Alternative Four was unachievable.
“Sorry folks, but there’s no way you could do Option Four,” he said.
Wood lived through past floods and said the devastation they brought to the upper basin justifies a dam, though he said if it was constructed, Native American treaty rights would have to be protected as a prerequisite.
Jay Gordon, an area farmer and member of the Governor's Work Group who helped draft the EIS, said his family has been involved with finding a solution for flooding since the 1930s, when a plan to create levees was voted down.
If no plans are implemented, he said spring chinook salmon will become extinct from the river within 20 years due to the effects of climate change.
“Doing nothing means we have more flooding … and we have less fish,” he said.
The state Department of Ecology will include all public comment, both written and those presented at the meetings, into their final recommendation from the Governor’s Work Group, which will be presented to Gov. Jay Inslee.
The public comment period was recently extended until Nov. 14, and residents can still submit written comment. Comments can be submitted online at http://chehalisbasinstrategy.com/eis-comments/, by email via firstname.lastname@example.org or mailed to Chehalis Basin Strategy EIS, c/o Anchor Que, 720 Olive Way, Suite 1900, Seattle, WA 98101.
A draft of the EIS can be viewed at http://chehalisbasinstrategy.com/eis-library/.
The Board of Lewis County Commissioners, the Port of Chehalis and the Chehalis City Council voted earlier this week to endorse Alternative One.
Those declarations of support were preceded by an unanimous vote of the Chehalis River Basin Flood Authority in support of the Pe Ell dam option.